Illustrations by Susan Burghart / For The Times; animation by Jason Allen Lee / For The Times
On the floor of the Yaamava’ Resort & Casino in San Bernardino County, amid the clangs and howls of thousands of slot machines, Shelby Flores knew she’d just gotten extremely lucky. She was about to watch one of her favorite singers, the British pop superstar Ed Sheeran, in a 3,000-capacity nightclub.
“I was going to see him when he played a stadium show in Las Vegas, but it got canceled,” said Flores, 31. She drove in from Roswell, N.M., to see Sheeran at Yaamava’, a resort run by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, in October. “My boyfriend found these tickets and he was like, ‘It’s a smaller venue.’ But this is way smaller.”
Flores caught the “Shape of You” singer, who sold out the 81,000-capacity SoFi Stadium in Inglewood in September, in a room just a bit bigger than the Wiltern. The theater, opened in 2022, still had a new-construction smell — great acoustics, perfect sightlines and a short elevator hop to the rooftop pool and spa. It’s the closest tribal casino-resort to L.A., but on a Wednesday night, it wasn’t even at capacity for Sheeran’s gig.
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To judge by recent appearances by Sheeran, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Killers and Janet Jackson, this caliber of concert is becoming a regular occasion at Yaamava’, and Flores said she’d definitely return. “I would have been in the nosebleeds if I’d seen Ed in Vegas,” she said.
With stars like Sheeran earning big paychecks between spins of the roulette wheel, and the likes of Adele and Lady Gaga playing Las Vegas residencies to sold-out crowds, are casino gigs cool now? Or is Yaamava’’s burst onto major rock and pop tour schedules in SoCal — touted via ubiquitous local billboards and radio and TV ads — a new twist in the recent live-music cash sluice?
“We still run into that stigma,” said Peter Arceo, the chief gaming officer for the San Manuel tribe’s resort portfolio, which includes Yaamava’. “We can’t just build a venue and assume people will come. If we want to go after artists who play arenas and stadiums, we’re going to have to earn respect.”
Post-pandemic, the live music industry has roared back to life. Despite fan complaints about high prices and fees, Live Nation’s most recent quarterly revenue soared 32% to $8.2 billion, with year-to-date revenue up 36% to $16.9 billion. The $2-billion-plus Sphere in Las Vegas just opened with a residency from U2 and rapt crowds. With stadium tours from Taylor Swift and Beyoncé breaking records and dominating pop culture, it seems there’s a bottomless appetite for spending big on live music.
That now extends to casino gigs.
There are more than 80 tribal casinos in California that rake in an estimated $8 billion in annual revenue, largely from slot machines, of which Yaamava’ has more than 7,000, the most in SoCal. Properties like Pechanga, Agua Caliente and Morongo have become comfortable, if sometimes un-glamorous, places for musicians to play just outside SoCal’s major cities. Casinos don’t need to turn a profit on concerts — crowds will probably outspend the door price on gambling, restaurants and hotel stays. For a resort like Yaamava, it’s worth spending big on pop stars like Sheeran to stand out among the competition and attract new, younger audiences.
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Even though casino crowds are a mix between fans and resort guests with a comped seat (who may not even know the act onstage), for veterans on the casino circuit, those gigs are low-stress stops to pad a traditional tour.
“Casinos have so much money, and music is a smart way for them spend it,” said Tommy Shaw, the singer and guitarist for the rock group Styx, which regularly plays casinos alongside traditional venues (they played Yaamava’ in September). He said that Styx treats casino gigs like any other; the band makes their standard guarantee and they get to stay in a nice hotel on-site.
“Anyone who plays those places knows it’s a pretty sweet thing,” Shaw said. “Good backstage areas, great security and hospitality. They’re becoming state-of-the-art venues and set the bar high for smaller markets.”
“We definitely relax a bit when we see a casino on the tour list,” said Rick Springfield, who’s played chestnuts like “Jessie’s Girl” in casinos alongside sheds and theaters for decades (he hits Rancho Mirage’s Agua Caliente in December, behind a new album, “Automatic”). “When I played Vegas in the ‘80s, I thought, ‘What am I doing here? This is retirement.’ But now, we’ll be staying in the same building and walk downstairs to play. The people are excited to have you there. It’s a nice way to fill in a tour on a Wednesday night, and the crowds are just as crazy.”
The new Yaamava’, however, is attempting something bigger — vying for the same caliber of shows as major stadiums and arenas in L.A.
The Yaamava’ complex — a sister property of the Palms in Las Vegas — underwent a $750-million renovation and rebrand beginning in 2018. Part of that was transforming the former bingo hall, which had hosted occasional concerts since the casino’s 1986 debut, into a state-of-the-art theater. Yaamava’’s entertainment chief, Drew Dixon, inked a partnership with Live Nation to steer top acts further east when off-cycle from their headline tours.
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“We saw that everything below stadiums and arenas in the area was an older facility, and there was an opportunity,” Arceo said. “We invited agents and managers to help tee it up, but there wasn’t access to artists right out of the gate. We knew they were not going to believe us. That was a big question Live Nation had for us: ‘How are you going to pull this off?’ In SoCal, you’re competing against so many alternative options. So how do you capture attention?”
Yaamava’’s answer? So, so many billboards. Arceo declined to give an estimate on the venue’s recent marketing spend, or its finances more generally, but one can’t listen to 10 minutes of local sports-talk radio or drive a mile down an L.A. thoroughfare and not encounter an ad for the casino, often promoting a headline act like Sheeran or Mariah Carey (Nov. 15, two days before she brings her Christmas show to the Hollywood Bowl).
The venue’s first concert in 2022 was a private gig from the stadium-filling rock act Red Hot Chili Peppers, a de facto endorsement from one of L.A.’s most famous bands.
“It’s a waterfall effect,” Arceo said. “It starts with an artist that grabs your attention, so you say ‘What’s Yaamava’? I know Mariah Carey, but what’s that?”
Sometimes, even the artists playing ask similar questions.
“This is a different show than a stadium,” Sheeran chuckled onstage at his show, noting that many in the casino crowd were toting around freebie appliances. “I love playing gigs like this. Am I right that everyone was given a blender?” (The blenders were a perk for Yaamava’ rewards-card holders.)
So what does a superstar artist like Sheeran get out of playing a small-capacity, far-flung gig like this? Likely a seven-figure guarantee, for starters.
“Ed probably makes 4 to 6 million dollars for a sold-out stadium show,” estimated Randy Phillips, the former chief executive of AEG Live (now AEG Presents). Phillips helped produce Celine Dion’s groundbreaking Las Vegas residency at Caesar’s Palace in the 2000s. “Casinos are not the most animated audiences an artist can play in front of,” he added with a laugh. “But for an artist to pick up an extra 2, 3, 4 million? That’s irresistible.”
Rod Essig, Styx’s booking agent at CAA who also reps Joan Jett, REO Speedwagon and Tim McGraw, took a more sanguine view.
“You can play Yaamava’ and play the Greek Theatre in L.A. and they don’t affect each other,” Essig said. “The sound and lighting at Yaamava’ is phenomenal, and the money is just as good as it is in L.A.”
Although California voters soundly rejected a 2022 proposal to allow sports betting at tribal casinos, these properties have the resources to take big swings to draw younger audiences in the door to stay and gamble. (The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians was one of several California tribes who put up $100 million to stop legalized online sports betting in the state).
Yaamava’ and other area casinos are also betting big on the continued population growth of the Inland Empire.
Riverside County gained 36,000 residents between July 2020 and July 2021, the third most in the country. San Bernardino County grew by 11,970 people, helping the IE overtake San Francisco to become the 12th largest metropolitan area in the U.S.
The area has also seen significant investments in live music, like the 10,000-capacity Acrisure Arena near Palm Springs, which competes for arena and stadium acts booking SoCal dates. Ontario opened the Toyota Arena in 2008, which is a frequent stop for arena-caliber Latin acts, and Riverside spent $32 million to renovate the Fox Performing Arts Center in 2010. Goldenvoice, which produces Indio’s annual Coachella festival, books shows at venues like the Fox Theater and Glass House in Pomona.
“I keep asking what is really going on out there,” one live-music executive, who asked to remain anonymous, said about Yaamava’. “They would book stuff like comics and classic rock bands, but now they can pay Ed Sheeran, Dave Matthews and Lionel Richie the equivalent of two sellouts in an arena?”
The executive said that in the post-pandemic live boom, the bookings are a brash and likely effective marketing play — for now. “They do this so they can plaster Ed Sheeran and Janet Jackson’s face all over L.A.,” they said. “They’ll tell fans and artists, ‘It’s cool to come play to 3,000 seats.’ But big touring acts are at some point going to say, ‘This isn’t cool, it’s really an unintended testimonial for a casino.”
For acts and agents on the receiving end of Yaamava’’s largesse, that’s a trade off they can live with. Up next at Yaamava’: Carey, John Fogerty, Maná and Trevor Noah, each arena or amphitheater-size headliners. Who knows how long this casino gig boom will endure, but for a veteran rocker like Shaw, who has a residency at the Venetian in Las Vegas next year, these shows aren’t just a byproduct of a post-COVID gold rush.
“A lot of our fans are the same age as I am now, but they still want to go to shows,” Shaw, 70, said. “I know bands that could be playing a hundred shows a year, but they don’t want to do casinos. I think it’s smart to play them — they pay a lot of money, the acoustics are great, and we’re playing new music for old and young fans every night. So why not?”
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